BSOS Sociologist Looks at People Behind Environmental Efforts
By Tom Ventsias
University researchers will explore the connections between environmental
activism and policy.
What’s driving environmentally friendly legislation and "green" activism in the United States? Nobel prizewinner Al Gore and senior members of Congress, or your neighbor digging dirt in a community garden?
A University of Maryland sociologist is conducting research in the hallways of Congress, the offices of top federal administrators and the parks of New York City to offer a snapshot of the movers and shakers—and diggers—involved in legislative and community efforts related to environmental causes.
"Society is going to be the push that makes [environmental] legislation feasible. It just doesn’t happen in a vacuum," says Dana R. Fisher, an associate professor in College of Social and Behavioral Sciences, or BSOS, who arrived at Maryland in January after almost a decade of research and teaching at Columbia University.
Fisher has been working to launch the Center for Society and the Environment, which will encourage participation from faculty and students interested in the social component of environmental research.
The center, set to open this summer in the Art/Sociology Building, will conduct research, support graduate students and create an intellectual hub for sociological work on the environment. It also aims to encourage interdisciplinary work among the broad range of environmental experts at Maryland, including faculty in sociology, government and politics, geography, economics, biology and atmospheric and oceanic sciences, among others.
"The Center for Society and the Environment will further complement the interdisciplinary approach we take to understanding and addressing the impact of climate change and environmental sustainability," says BSOS Dean John Townshend, whose own research uses NASA satellites to track land-cover changes that affect the Earth’s carbon cycle.
Fisher says she is particularly interested in collaborating with faculty in the School of Public Policy, since she seeks to understand the human element that drives climate policy networks. In one National Science Foundation-funded project she brought from Columbia, Fisher is conducting one-on-one interviews with dozens of key environmental policymakers in the United States—from congressional leaders to Department of Energy officials—to get a better sense of how they make decisions.
"If we can discover patterns of who these people work with, or where they get their [scientific] information, it might give us insight on how we can bring groups with disparate viewpoints—at all levels—together for a positive outcome," Fisher says.
Fisher is also leading another NSF-funded study that aims to understand the participants in the "MillionTreesNYC" project, which is a coordinated effort among local government agencies, nonprofits and private citizens in the Big Apple to plant and maintain one million new trees across the city’s five boroughs during the next 10 years.
Understanding the "who, how and why" of urban greening is essential to long-term sustainability efforts, says Erika Svendsen, a research social scientist with the U.S. Forest Service who has worked in partnership with Fisher for several years on compiling data on urban stewardship. Svendsen says the information they are gathering could be used to compare with, and strengthen, similar community-based programs in cities throughout the United States.
"City managers and the civic groups themselves are hungry for this information," Svendsen adds. "We’ve heard plenty of anecdotal stories of why people get involved, but we really haven’t had the type of city-wide data we would like to better understand what motivates these people to take action."
Fisher and Svendsen are releasing a study later this month that showcases some of their research findings on the regreening effort. One item of interest is that less than one-quarter of interviewees were strangers to each other; they came to the events with friends, family, colleagues or members of an organization in which they were involved.
"This was a true community effort of people coming together for environmental stewardship," Fisher says. "That is something we want to look more closely at, the collegiality as it relates to participation."